Are People With Disabilities Invited To The Party?
On the 6th December 2014, three days after International Day of People with Disabilities, Ms Stella Young; a disability activist, advocate to young people with disabilities, a comedian, TV presenter, journalist and self professed atheist passed away. She lived her life with Osteogenesis Imperfecta. As a person with a disability I admired Stella’s fiery gutsy personality standing up to injustices and discrimination against people with disabilities; breaking through stereotypes and myths. Stella challenged me in very profound ways!
I was disappointed I wasn’t able to get to her memorial service in Melbourne and celebrate with my disability community such an amazing and influential person in my life. So instead, I viewed the service while streaming live on the ABC network in between my medical appointments on my mobile phone chewing up all my data! I was determined to not miss such a significant event!
At the memorial service in one of the eulogies given by her comedian friend and colleague, Nelly Thomas. Nelly quoted Stella saying about organised religion “I lost faith in God the day I found out there was a stairway to heaven.” Now I know this comment was part of her comedy gig routine but I felt an underlying disappointment and even anger from Stella toward churches that seem to be only accessible to the ‘able’ community.
In another eulogy by Bryce Ives, Bryce quoted Stella saying about Heaven, “If you can’t provide access then I’m not coming to your party!”
When I heard these two quotes from Stella my heart broke! I do not know what Stella’s personal faith journey was like but I was sad to hear she had only negative experiences from the Christian community.
But there was another part of me that said, “Well hec yeah! I wouldn’t go to the party either if the church wasn’t accessible!”
I commented to a minister of a church I was visiting once that if he had a permanent ramp into his church he would find more people in wheelchairs might decide to come inside. His response, ‘If we see more people in wheelchairs that want to come in then we will put in a permanent ramp’ He totally missed the point I was making. An inaccessible church sends me the message, ‘I don’t belong and I am not welcomed’.
In Luke 14:21 Jesus instructs us, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame”
If Jesus instructs us to ‘bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame’ we as the Christian community need to make sure that at this banquet, this PARTY we are inviting people with disabilities to, that people in wheelchairs and physical disabilities are able to enter and access all areas of our church, that people with intellectual disabilities understand, that people who are blind see and those who are deaf hear, those living with mental illness feel understood and accepted and those on the autism spectrum are not distressed.
Question: Why don’t our churches have a Disability Ministry Worker?? We have ‘Youth Worker’s’ that specifically focus on the needs of our youth. A ‘Kids Ministry Worker’, a ‘Men’s Ministry Worker’, a ‘Womens Ministry Worker; even a ‘Singles Ministry Worker’ Such groups are needed so as individual and specific needs get met in a way that are not met within a whole congregation setting. So why is it so rare to see a ‘Disability Ministry Worker’ in our Churches? Every now and then I do come across a church who do focus on disability issues but that is because the Senior Minister or Pastors’ own daughter or son was either born with a disability or acquired a disability through an accident which has forced them to look at disability and how it all fits theologically. The good news is that we don’t have to experience such a personal tragedy to make us see we need to make our churches accessible to people with disabilities even though I know that is how God sometimes works.
I strongly believe that education on disability and theological issues all need to start from the top if we are to see a fully inclusive church. From our theological colleges who as part of their ministry degrees have implemented disability awareness-training. So when ministers, pastors or priests go off and lead their own churches they are equipped with how to meet the needs of people with specific disabilities and how to view disability personally and theologically. This then will filter down right through the rest of the congregation. I believe when we all have a healthy biblical theology of disability this will significantly impact, how we perceive people with disabilities, how we welcome and embrace people with disabilities and how well we implement inclusive practices throughout our services and church activities.
To quote Stella Young from a letter she writes to her 80 year old self ‘… I was not wrong for the world I live in. The world I live in was not yet right for me”
How do we make our churches right so that people with disabilities don’t feel ‘wrong’ and don’t belong as part of the Body of Christ? Does your Church or Christian community have a ‘Disability Ministry Worker’? How is it going? Are you studying at a theological college that has a focus on disability? If you have/or have a family member with a disability, what has been your experience of Christian community and what would you like to see changed?
I would love to hear your thoughts and your stories on this particular subject so please comment below.